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Shifting Identities of Nigerian Yorubas in Dahomey and Republic of Benin c. 1940 - c. 2004

Jean-Luc Martineau, SEDET - Université Paris 7 - Denis Diderot

Right at the beginning of the colonial process, the circulation across the French-British colonial border was interrupted. The east-west roads in the Yoruba region were almost closed by the British coloniser. Already disorganized by the Yoruba civil wars and the end of slaves trade, the whole intra-Yoruba traffic was diverted to Lagos instead of Porto-Novo or Ouidah. The Yoruba east part of Dahomey on one side and the Nigerian Yoruba provinces on the other one were to develop on their own. Apart anti-fiscal migrations in rural areas, trans-border migrations between Nigeria and Dahomey and their consequences on processes of identity building have not been really studied. In this paper, we propose to focuse on Nigerian Yoruba communities in Dahomey / Republic of Benin and their shifting identities c. 1940 - c. 2004.
Even though it is difficult to appreciate the volume of the migrations, trans-border movements to Dahomean towns started again after the second World War. French colonial archives (Porto-Novo and Aix-en-Provence) as well as the British ones (NAI and PRO in Kew Garden) are quite poor on that subject. Files about legal and illegal trade movements, markets' women or criminal cases are the only ones to mention "Nigerians" but regardless to their regional origin. Private archives and interviews are our main sources. Informations have been collected in 1995 and 1999 and will be completed during a two-month stay (in july-august 2005).
Since the mid-century, Nigerian migrants settled in Cotonou and Porto-Novo are locally organised by leaders who remain connected to their Nigerian hometowns up to the present days. Nevertheless most of the newcomers had to renegotiate their identity in Dahomey then Republic of Benin. One striking thing to be notice is the diversity of cases in the shifting identity processes. The moment of the migration, the policy of the Republic of Dahomey/Benin toward Nigerians, the policy of the Nigerian embassy in Cotonou, the length of the stay and the cultural environment of the migrants strongly determined the forms and degree of integration in the Benin urban society.
The Offa people in Cotonou for instance chose to become Benin citizens long time ago and the Offa newcomers had been invited to integrate this process of integration since then, joining the Offa Descendants' Union. The Oyo, Ede and Ibadan as well as the Ijebu-Epe people although sometime settled in Cotonou or Porto-Novo for decades, still considered themselves as Nigerians with monthly meeting and active membership to local, regional or pan-yoruba Descendants'Unions. The Oyo-Yoruba association in Cotonou has been ruled by "Baba Oyo" up to the beginning of the 1990's. His influence was strengthened by Kerekou's policy which forbade ethnic (here sub-ethnic) manifestations during the 1970's-80's. The Yorubas themselves had to gather with Igbo and Hausas in the Nigerian Association of Benin. The federation was also encouraged by the Nigerian embassy as a way to identify and to control migrants with its "embassy ID cart".
The end of the anti-ethnic policy gave the different subgroups (Oyo, Ede, Ogbomoso, Epe or Osogbo) the opportunity to organise themselves on their own and to shift back to their hometown identity if never forgotten. Self constituted age groups also organised migrants. The process of democratisation allowed references to the ancestors'city which are now clearly promoted. The death of "Baba Oyo" accelerate the process of disintegration of the Association of the Nigerian Yoruba in Cotonou although Ade Adewunmi's attempts to keep everybody together.
In spite of differences, what occurs from all these processes is the strong symbolic (sometimes more) relation kept with the Nigerian ancestors' city. Recently an original experience was initiated when an attempt was made to strengthen the Yoruba trans-border relations. The association of Nigerian Oyo migrants in Porto-Novo promoted the creation of an Oyo born oba in Porto-Novo. Obviously, this attempt which found its origins in Oyo was was seen as a foreign initiative and it has not been welcome by the " collectivités " of Benin Yorubas of Porto-Novo. It is anyway a sign of the ability of Yoruba migrants to renegotiate their identity according to the needs of times.



Africa Conference 2006: Movements, Migrations and Displacements in Africa
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